Beautiful Sask buildings deserve more love
by Gregory Beatty
Any architecture buffs out there? If so, you’ll love a new book by University of Regina Press called Architecture of Saskatchewan: A Visual Journey, 1930-2011. It’s by Regina-based architect Bernard Flaman, and it’s a sequel of sorts to Historic Architecture of Saskatchewan, which the Saskatchewan Association of Architects and others published in 1986.
“This project dates back to 2003,” says Flaman. “The [SAA] wanted to do something to celebrate the province’s centennial in 2005. It’s called a visual journey. It’s very image heavy.”
The book covers the tail end of Art Deco, which featured a lot of ornamentation on buildings; Modernism, where form followed function and precise geometric designs ruled the day; and International Style and postmodernism, which blend Modernist and earlier design principles but use sleek, high-tech materials like tempered glass and polished metal.
The book is arranged chronologically, with each chapter organized around a theme.
Regina and Saskatoon buildings predominate in Flaman’s book, but there’s a solid representation of buildings from smaller communities like Humboldt, Indian Head, Watson and Wynyard, too. Many were built as centennial projects in 1967, which places them firmly in the Modernist period.
“I consciously tried to find buildings in smaller communities, and some were really pleasant surprises,” says Flaman. “They were usually town hall, library, or city hall-type buildings that are quite lovely and have stood the test of time.”
Not all buildings in the book are public ones, either. Some are private residences. There’s also a mix of archival and present-day images by photographers like Henry Kalen, Don Hall and Larry Easton, along with some architectural drawings. “It really just gives an overview,” says Flaman. “But one of my desires is to foster a better culture of architecture.
“I was in Chicago for the first time in 2006. I was so surprised by how much people I encountered on my trip knew about the buildings around them. People who live in Chicago are aware that Chicago has great architecture. They may not know about it in depth, but they’re aware of it in a way I found startling.”
Unfortunately, our architectural literacy is nowhere near as high. It’s not that Saskatchewan lacks great buildings; Flaman’s book is proof that we have some wonderful ones.
“The SaskPower building by Joseph Pettick is an excellent example,” says Flaman. “The point of departure was Brazilian Modernism, but then he added wheat-coloured bricks, an icicle ceiling, and boreal forest tiles in the lobby to contextualize it in Saskatchewan.
“One could also talk about Clifford Wiens’ work. It was rooted in an understanding of space. His studio for artist John Nugent, for example – you can’t imagine that being anywhere else but in the Qu’Appelle Valley.”
Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate our buildings like we should. One example featured in Flaman’s book is Wiens’ Silton Chapel at Saskatchewan Beach. It’s an award-winning building constructed in 1969 that seems destined for demolition because of its run-down condition.
People will point out that preserving heritage architecture is a tough job. Saskatchewan’s insane climate and soil conditions put huge stress on building exteriors and foundations. As well, historically, a lot of building happens in boom times, so planning and construction become quick and dirty affairs.
“We tend to build as cheaply as possible,” says Flaman. “Then we throw away our buildings when we’re done with them. It’s part of the boom cycle, absolutely. But we don’t do a good job of maintenance. We tend to not even have much expertise for it. People who are in charge of taking care of buildings, I find, often have little formal training for some of the issues they end up dealing with.”
The primary responsibility for maintenance falls to the property owner. But society, through various levels of government, also has an obligation to financially support heritage architecture, which has a lot of community value.
But the money allocated at the municipal, provincial and federal level is typically very modest. The Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation’s annual budget, for example, is only $504,000.
If the will is there, even buildings that are one step from the wrecking ball can be restored. Flaman shows that in his discussion of the University of Saskatchewan’s extensive 2005 renovation of its College Building.
“It’s an example of how it’s never too late. From the outside it looks like a Gothic building, but it was actually a high-tech building, for its day. It used reinforced concrete, but the contractor didn’t understand how to do that. They didn’t get the concrete mix right, didn’t build the form work strong enough, so it sagged when they poured the concrete. You can see in the photos, too, that the reinforcing only goes one way. It should go in two directions [to create a cross-hatch].
“Clifford Wiens did one of the planning reports. He described it as replacing the bones in a chicken while keeping the chicken alive. It’s now called the Peter MacKinnon Building. He was president at the time, and hats off to him for leading the charge. He had a boarded-up building at the centre of his campus. It was designated as a national and provincial heritage property. Demolishing it and building something new was being called for, but he didn’t accept that.”
Saskatchewan could use more of that gumption.
For several years now there’s been talk of establishing a School of Architecture at the University of Saskatchewan. Long term, it’s an idea Flaman supports to grow the profession in the province and foster further appreciation for architecture.
“I do worry, though, that the challenges are great. What we see happening today is that universities are being cut back. An architecture program is not a cheap program. What we may want to think about instead is: how do we enhance architectural education in Saskatchewan? Are there things we already have, such as the Architectural Technology program at SIAST, that we can build on?”
The book signing is at 7 p.m. at Chapters at 2625 Gordon Rd. For more on Architecture of Saskatchewan, visit www.uofrpress.ca.